Tuesday, December 8

Maitake Madness

There has been very little as of late to thrill my taste buds to the point of audible exclamation. Food ingredients I will never blame, rather the issue occurs when there is a severance from the source of inspiration, and this small tragedy strikes when too long operating within the confines of the tried and true. Fortunately a recent trip to the market unearthed an exotic fungal beast, a cluster of vigorously formed maitake mushrooms jeering for attention. Grifola frondosa or playful, hen-of-the-woods are praised for their health virtues. This I presumed might make them medicinal and at best pithy, perhaps more apt for brew. With relief I found this assumption to be utterly wrong as I jogged to memory of a man stuffing a sizeable vegetal hen into his knapsack whilst crowing about his find. Inappropriate behavior within a National Park, but now I understand his misappropriation and find myself likewise scanning dark corners where the trees hit the forest floor.

Apparently maitake is named the dancing mushroom because foragers tend to jump about excitedly with glee upon discovering some. The descriptor is no exaggeration. To behold Grifola is to be captivated by honey brown plumes erupting forth from a base somewhat wiggly, irrepressible, and full of musty mushroom odor. Cap-less, the fronds shred easily revealing nested recursive forms and if not mindful of the time, one could get lost in the maze of wonder. Where to go from there? A quick trip to the fry pan with some oil and a flash of heat, nothing too long or too gentrified. A steady squeeze of lime, umami rich fish sauce, cilantro, mint, and yes I believe some sugar too. Now at long last, a fork. Pleasing on so many levels, this might be one of the best things eaten this year.

The preparation is reductive; bowls, measuring spoons, and all other instruments of cooking drop out of sight, leaving only intimate connection to the land and its fruits. The flavors, clear singular notes which play upon the entire terrain of the tongue achieve triumphant perfection. But what makes these bites so revelatory for me, is undoubtedly the texture. Some describe it as meaty which is partially true, but that suggests an experience full, rotund and muscular. This has the slight weird factor which Asians adore and demand in their food. Reminiscent of jellyfish, though not as crispy, it has a slightly dry mouth feel which calls to mind shredded turkey or deep fried tofu, a tad spongy, the barest hint of elasticity… thoroughly interesting and hard to describe. Meanwhile the whole time one is thoughtfully masticating and attempting to identify the essence, this nutty sweet fungal perfume fills ones entire head cavity. The chewiness which connotes funky things like collagen, innards and the cartilage-in-between, mixed with the secretive flavors of the earth, wakens me to my animal self, to the being desirous to sample dirt and all connective tissue tethering firmament to ground.
Maitake mad now and wanting to growl and claw, I race over to tree stump barely noticed the week before; sure I had seen a huddle of hens. Disappointed I find instead shelves of handsome calcified ruffles, velvety striped accessories decidedly non-edible. At the mouth of the Royal View, a 50 plus acre development overlooking the Mt. Washington Valley, I enter with the usual swell in my heart. The spectacular view is gaping expanse of water colored profiles melting into mackerel skies. The foreground is a clear cut hill side community standing nearly vacant, money pouring down the granite sided drains. I find myself contemplating man vs. nature, as I observe swift aggressive decisions made in the name of development and wonder what the trees out yonder think about their domesticated brethren. Rather than people, most lots are occupied by Zeussian plugs of Sweet Fern; one of the first to move in after brush and trees are removed. Spicy rich oils emerge from scalloped leaves, perfect for imparting enigmatic flavor into a mug of hot water. A slow amble later, tiny winter berries peep underneath low lying plant matter. Bold red mints disguised in cheery form, the electrical boxes’ hum recedes behind the wind. A hawk stands watch- and suddenly it is apparent that there is a wildness to life that cannot be squelched. This gives me great relief as I leave the Royal View, heart swelled still. The search for mushrooms for another day.


Lucy said...

Isn't it amazing how a hillside thus decimated is, in fact, teeming with life still? Good 'ole Mother Nature. Sounds like a beauty of a spot.

I want me a clutch of Miatake's to photograph!

By the way, 'Maitake mad now' is probably my favourite line. Ever.

Anonymous said...

mmmmmm....classic, lovely post.

you cover acres of existential ground with this one, yet the food-core is never in doubt.

Fish sauce? Perhaps I'll try it with the apricot-y Chanterelles in my freezer.

Thank you.

Callipygia said...

Hee hee, careful Lucy they like to peck!

Anonymous- The sauce is thai inspired and quite assertive, which is why it seems to work so well with the maitake. I admit I have a hard time imagining the texture of previously frozen Chantrelles...

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